The Ethics of Water

Here’s an unintentionally useful essay on the origin of morality: Where Do Morals Come From?

It’s got everything from game theory to nihilism to erudite, ivory-tower ontology. It even mentions Nietzsche—if only to refute him. The conclusion:

We are all anthropologists now. What are we to do? Stay home? Go native? Be hybrid? Keane does not venture an answer to these questions.

However we answer these questions for ourselves, we cannot escape the phenomenological tension between the first-, second-, and third-person perspectives on ethical life. Some will seek refuge in the first person. They will seek to be “true to themselves,” to “listen to their inner voice,” and they will respond to challenges with a mix of apology and indignation. Others will immerse themselves in the second person. They will value loyalty to the “tribe,” and respond to “outsiders” with a mix of indifference and hostility. Still others—intellectuals, mostly—will take shelter in the third person. They will place a high value on toleration and acceptance, and they will respond to challenges with a phlegmatic aloofness. The problem is that none of us can stand still in any perspective for very long. The affordances of our minds and our languages, and the demands of social cooperation and interaction, will not permit it for long. We cannot escape ethical life. Nor can we find peace in it, either.

What is an ethical life: this life we can neither escape nor rest in? The best attempt at an answer that I can recall comes from Derrick Jensen, who wrote that morality should be based on water: whatever leads to more potable water for future generations of humans and non-humans is “good.” That answer is simple (and as was written above the blackboard in my World Cultures class in high school: “For every complex problem there is a solution that is simple, ready, and wrong,” or something like that). But so, too, are all the other just-as-wrong answers, and at least it doesn’t require page upon page of postmodern, snake-eating-its-own-tail “reasoning.”



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